BY: JALEED AHMED GILANI, M.B.B.S., BATCH XVIII
This essay won Third Prize at the AKU National Health Sciences Research Symposium’s Student Essay Competition.
“What if I told you that this world around us, this richly textured world, were all just an illusion constructed in your head?” asks eminent neuroscientist David Eagleman in the brilliant documentary The Brain with David Eagleman. He then questions “What if I said that the real world has no smell or taste or sound? What if I said there’s no color?” and then concludes “If you could perceive reality as it really is out there, you wouldn’t recognize it at all.” Indeed, this richly detailed world that we see around us and experience every day is, in fact, one of the marvelous constructs of our brain.
The human brain, weighing around 3 pounds and residing in our skulls is the home to our very existence. And in spite of being isolated from the physical world, our brain provides us with the ability to perceive reality through our sensory modalities. This has fascinated neuroscientists of all generations with modern neuroscience continuing to illuminate many new facts about ourselves every day.
We tend to view our personality as a firm pillar of ourselves separate from our physical brain. We also use the capacities endowed to us by our brain without giving it much thought. Sadly, it is only when loss of function of a region of the brain due to any cause occurs do we truly understand the devastating effects it can have on human lives. This is brought out by the curious case of Charles Joseph Whitman.
On August 1, 1966, Whitman murdered his wife and mother. He then headed to the University of Texas at Austin, where, after climbing the tower, he started shooting at innocent civilians with the weapons he had brought with him. The mass shooting resulted in 14 deaths at the hands of Whitman before he was shot down.
What makes this case even more curious is Whitman’s suicide note, in which he wrote “I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.” He also requested an autopsy be done on him after his death to find any visible physical disorder. His wish was granted.
On autopsy, Whitman was found to have a tumor of the brain known as glioblastoma multiforme which was impinging on a region of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala has been documented in decision making and processing emotional reactions and it is highly evident that these tectonic shifts in his character could be due to the tumor.
This example above points out the inseparability of the thinking mind and the physical brain. Outside of the field of science, philosophers too have wrestled with this concept throughout centuries. The French philosopher Descartes was one of the strongest proponents of what is referred to as Dualism in the philosophy of mind.
Descartes believed that there was an immaterial soul residing in the pineal gland which was exercising its functions over the rest of the body. He detailed this concept in his famous Meditations on First Philosophy and Passions of The Soul. Cartesian Dualism did have its critics, even in the era of Descartes. A modern version of the criticism is the lack of evidence for an immaterial soul residing outside the realm of space causally affecting the workings of the physical brain.
Over the years, many approaches have been taken to try tackling the problem, such as the Identity Theory, which identifies mental states- thinking, feeling etc. – as being causally linked to brain processes e.g. pain being equivalent to C-fibers firing. Another influential theory, Functionalism, takes the brain to be analogous to a computer with inputs and states that like any computing machine, mental states can be specified in terms of their causal relations to inputs it receives (stimuli), the output it gives (our responses to these stimuli) as well as other mental states.
The most difficult problem yet to be tackled both by neuroscience and philosophy is the problem of consciousness. The philosopher Thomas Nagel very rightly wrote in his famous 1974 article, What is It Like to Be a Bat?, that “Without consciousness, the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness, it seems hopeless.” The philosopher David Chalmers describes our conscious experience beautifully in a TED talk in 2014 when he said “Right now you have a movie playing inside your head. It’s an amazing movie, with 3D, smell, taste, touch, a sense of body, pain, hunger, emotions, memories, and a constant voice-over narrative. At the heart of this movie is you, experiencing this, directly. This movie is your stream of consciousness, experience of the mind and the world.”
The problem of consciousness, according to David Chalmers, is that consciousness involves a subjective experience. For Chalmers, consciousness is not like lightning, which can be objectively explained as the movement of charges. The real problem is how neural firings inside our physical brain give rise to this rich inner movie each of us experiences as consciousness. For Chalmers, the problem can be approached via a radical approach. He suggests taking consciousness as a fundamental building block of the universe, like mass, space or time. By doing so, we won’t do away with applying a scientific method to consciousness, rather, he believes it would help open new scientific approaches to dealing with this mysterious phenomena.
Whatever the solution, objective or not, since time immemorial who we are has remained a fascinating mystery. Indeed, we must stop and wonder, what a magnificent organ resides in our skulls that not only generates our reality but grants us the ability to question it at the same time. Truly mesmerizing.
About the author: Final Year Med student, bookworm, afflicted with wanderlust and a deep curiosity of understanding the human brain and mind.